When the Government's latest Comprehensive Performance Assessments were announced just before Christmas, journalists were all too ready to look on the bleak side. Even The Guardian, the most public sector-friendly of the nationals, undermined the statement that 70 per cent of councils in England were performing 'strongly' or 'well' with the headline 'Councils failing to deliver value for money'. Similar condemnation elsewhere was a defeat for local government PROs and unfair to a public that deserves a more balanced picture of how its local council is doing.
Over the Christmas break, headlines heralded the end of two-tier government and the devolution of more powers to parish level, including in London. The details will follow – and it will be our job to make sense of them and find exciting ways of engaging public interest in another rather sterile debate about structures. Above all we must prevent councils from fighting among themselves which, as witnessed in the last reorganisation in the mid-1990s, does credit neither to the sector nor our profession.
It was heartening, therefore, to see some good public sector news making the front pages before the curtain fell on 2005. In festive mood, The Guardian told the story of Kent County Council's contracts and performance manager, who was 'charged with co-ordinating the fightback against any meteorological onslaught'. Under the heading 'Snowed In? Don't worry, Brian Carter is on the case', it outlined Kent's battle against the elements with a human interest angle and enough facts and figures to make a seasoned PRO proud: 10 cms of snow tackled by 62 gritting lorries, 1,000 tonnes of rock salt, 250 farmers on standby under the 'snow plough agreement', declaration of a snow emergency and so forth.
It goes to show that when crises strike, good public services are there. And that good PR can still get them on the front page. The job never gets any easier – but when it is done well it can make all the difference.